I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
“Widening Circles”, Rainer Maria Rilke
Yesterday I went to one of those events which behind a rather staid academic title hides a hundred moments of inspiration and innovation. This was “New approaches to writing history“, hosted by the IHR and the Raphael Samuel History Centre, with authors Bart Van Es and Sarah Knott in conversation with Julia Laite: about their new books but also more broadly about the practice of writing history. Both are academics, though Van Es comes from literature while Knott is a historian, and both have produced books – The Cut-Out Girl and Mother respectively – that weave intensely personal experience with much wider histories.
I made furious notes and had brief excited conversation with several historians in the short time I had before dashing to Euston to make my train, and this morning woke up to find Will Pooley had already been hard at work writing a list of questions provoked by the session. I interpreted these questions to mean, in a larger sense: What conventions of history can be bent and broken before something is no longer considered history? How much of history writing is hidebound by traditions that, ultimately, exclude many people from both the making and consuming of history?
On the train last night my mind crackled. I thought about how Sarah Knott said she had come to a more fragmentary writing of history partly through the necessity of working while mothering small children, and then it had become by design, where the open-ended, anecdotal, even ineffable became choices as thoughtful alternative to the grand arc of authoritative narrative history.
This resonated with me deeply. As someone who has had to work in episodic pieces through varying combinations of job precarity, ill health and motherhood, even when I have cried out for us to develop a feminist praxis of academic work that allows for true inclusivity, it has been hard in my own work not to feel as if I am making do: that these fragments I have assembled are a makeshift sort of compromise for whatever imagined genius I might have made in another life.
We shine with brightness.
And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
“Ash Wednesday”, T.S. Eliot
I think about so many of my fellow feminist early career and otherwise precariously-employed colleagues, who shine with such brilliant light – like falling stars, because this system in which we work will not hold them aloft. We have grown accustomed to short dazzling bursts of light from women and minority scholars – a few brilliant conference papers, a starburst of an article, sometimes a lightning bolt of a book – that are lost when two years, five years, ten years later they have left the profession, and the sky is once again the clear blue status quo of expected and disseminated scholarship.
I thought of this as I received my own bolt-from-the-heavens in the form of a blog post by Julia Laite, which I missed when she wrote it in 2017; or perhaps instead, if I was writing a history of myself, the narrative would arc such that I found it at precisely the right moment: this morning, drinking tea and thinking about who I want to be.
I love history because of the stories that we will never completely know. I love it at the almost imperceptibly thin ends of each of the lightning bolt’s billion forks, not at that atmospheric crash where the lightning started.
Choose Your Own Adventure History – Julia Laite
But as Laite and Knott’s work reminds me, lived experience is not a tidy narrative, and the historian’s impulse to unravel, trim and tuck the past into linear narratives can be as much a means of silencing as it is of uncovering: each peeling-back may fold another piece of the past into shadow, and we all know whose history is most likely to fall into the dark.